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Brewers have to answer key questions

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McClatchy Tribune
September 11, 2009
— There are four premium positions on the baseball diamond.

They are the most vital parts of a club’s defense and players who occupy them are often categorized as team leaders, whether vocally or by example.


Catcher, shortstop, second base and center field are crucial pieces to any successful team. And the Milwaukee Brewers have uncertainty at each after this season.


The situations behind the plate and in center are particularly interesting and up for plenty of debate.


The Brewers have coverage at the other places. Second base looks to have two capable players, but the Brewers will have to decide if Rickie Weeks is the man or if Felipe Lopez will end that experiment.


Shortstop has two major-leaguers in J.J. Hardy and Alcides Escobar, while some teams scramble to find one.


But catcher Jason Kendall and center fielder Mike Cameron are free agents after this season. There is no guarantee either will be back next season, despite slim pickings to replace them.


“We’ll discuss Jason and Mike at length,” said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who has made it clear the priority is pitching in the off-season. “But we won’t make any decision until after the season. We’ll look at the entire makeup of our ball club.


“We have a lot of decisions to make.”


Cameron’s situation in center is complex because of his numbers—some good, some bad, depending on where you look—and high salary.


The Brewers picked up his option for the current season at a $10 million base salary, with incentives that could total $750,000.


Cameron’s batting average is (.255) is slightly above his career average (.250), but his on-base plus slugging is .803, well above his career average (.789) and the major league average (.751).


Defensively, he still ranks as one of the best in the game at his position and is among baseball’s leaders in center field in terms of runs above replacement level and wins above replacement level — both stats rank a players worth against what a replacement level fielder, hitter and/or pitcher would be.


While Cameron’s numbers might not be eye-popping and despite fans being frustrated with his strikeouts, he should have suitors this winter that could bring him a multi-year deal for similar money unless the free-agent market dips again. And believe it or not, but the Web site Fangraphs.com calls Cameron a bargain at that price considering the number of victories he brings.


Cameron projects to be a Type B free agent, so if the Brewers offer arbitration and Cameron signs elsewhere, the Brewers would gain a sandwich draft pick between the first and second rounds.


Weeks likely won’t be moved to the outfield; Corey Hart hasn’t shown enough to be a centerfielder among inexperienced corners; Corey Patterson, while cheap, would be a huge production gamble; and prospect Lorenzo Cain has battled injuries and hasn’t ripened enough for the everyday job in the big leagues.


That leaves the Brewers, a small-market team with seemingly no other organizational options in center, with a difficult decision.


Cameron, who hasn’t shown much decline at age 36, wouldn’t discuss figures but said he wants to come back to the team and “brotherhood” that exists in the clubhouse.


“But that’s not my choice,” Cameron said Wednesday morning. “(The Brewers) will get just as much an opportunity (to sign me) as anybody else.


“Most definitely. I would love to come back, but it’s going to be solely up to them on which direction they decide to go in. I’ve shown I can still play every day, I think.”


Kendall is something of a different story.


He is at the end of one of the worst seasons of his career. Kendall’s batting average (.240), hits (94), runs scored (42) and games (117) could all end up as career lows for full seasons and he is in line to have the second-most strikeouts of his career.


His defensive zone rating is still high among regulars behind the plate, but his runs and wins above replacement both dropped from 2008 and are the second lowest they’ve been since 2002.


Kendall, 35, is at $5 million this season, but a thin free-agent market at the position, coupled with the Brewers not having anyone else in the organization ready to take over everyday catching duties, again leaves few options for the club.


Mike Rivera, Kendall’s backup, has never started more than 39 games in a season and is 33 years old. The organization’s top catching prospect, Angel Salome, had a disappointing spring and his numbers were significantly down this season at Class AAA Nashville compared to 2008 with Class AA Huntsville, plus he battled injuries.


All things being relatively equal, Kendall would return to the Brewers for a similar deal, as would Cameron.


“I love it here,” Kendall said. “Without a doubt this is where I want to be. I’d love to end my career here.”


Soon it will be up to the Brewers to decide.



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